Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
They were called "women's films." Highbrow critics despised them and the public loved them. They were melodramas built around deeply sympathetic female characters sent through self-sacrifice and romantic suffering on their way to true love. For the highbrow film reviewers of the late 1930's and 1940's, the women's film was a species of pulp cinema, closer to confession magazine fiction than real cinema. Audiences couldn't get enough of them, however, and films like Now, Voyager and A Woman's Face were especially popular during the war years. It was a turbulent moment when familiar gender roles were being challenged in the factory, at the front, and at home. Seen today, the women's films are conflicted dramas of women caught between old social roles and unsettling passions. Many of them end in despair, their protagonists straightjacketed into "a woman's place," killing others or themselves, and going mad under the pressure. Still others end in triumph, with long-delayed love and personal happiness finally overcoming cruel convention. Random Harvest is one of the most satisfying of the great women's films, because the matter is in doubt right up until its photo-finish ending.
Random Harvest speaks, as did so many wartime women's films, to very real anxieties of its time. Random Harvest's central plot device is amnesia, based on battle fatigue, or what was called in World War I "shell shock." Psychological trauma was one of the most awful kinds of wounds, often induced by the experience of a sustained artillery barrage. Here, "Smithy," played by Ronald Colman, a British soldier wounded at Arras, waits out the last years of the war at Melbridge Asylum, a hospital strained to capacity by some the war's many thousands of serious psychiatric cases. Nearly mute, and in the grip of a kind of temporary autism, Smithy can't remember his name, where he's from, or what he did before the war. He is sheltered by Paula (Greer Garson, in a patented role), a spunky musical hall star, whose abiding love for him, as is true in so many women's films, is an unusually effective therapy for the unseen scars of war. "I can't tell you what it means to be someone again," he says, haltingly, and, as in many wartime melodramas, it is the strong and resourceful woman who brings the shattered male back from the precipice of insanity.
Random Harvest is one of a number of women's films of its day which linked World War I with World War II through elaborate flashbacks or doubling of characters (the same actor might play his own son, for instance), or just the eerie sense of history repeating itself. (In 1942, when Random Harvest appeared, the celebration of the end of World War I, with which the film begins, must have seemed tragically ironic.) In films like Random Harvest, Mr. Skeffington, The White Cliffs of Dover, Waterloo Bridge or To Each His Own, World War I was always a profoundly tragic experience, a war that seemed designed to bring young lovers together for an instant and the separate them for a lifetime. It was a way of expressing, through the critically despised genre of the melodrama, the politics of a war that, although it broken the hearts of countless millions through death and wounds of loved ones, had failed to bring lasting peace to Europe. In retrospect, Random Harvest bests its snobbish critics, for this is a film in which the psychological agonies of war - separation, injury, even death - are daily realities in the lives of its characters.
"Smithy" is perfectly out of synch with Paula, his real self just out of her reach. But we are on Paula's side; the film's point-of-view structure lets us know things that the amnesiac Smithy can't. Like many women's films, Random Harvest depends on a series of coincidences and accidents that are, in truth, outrageous, yet perfectly within the job of one of the archetypal plots of the women's film: to introduce two characters who are meant for each other, and then invent whatever means are necessary to keep them apart. Only Douglas Sirk's masterful Magnificent Obsession, which this film closely resembles, is as skillful in keeping its lovers in a combination of proximity and ignorance for so long. Whether through its warm, wordy screenplay, or through the looks and glances of its two stars, Random Harvest is delicious in its sadness. Indeed, the film's most potent moment is a silent one, the very last shot.
Random Harvest was meant as a follow-up to the hugely successful Mrs. Miniver. Both films starred Greer Garson, both were written by the same team of screenwriters, including novelist James Hilton, and both featured richly complicated and sympathetic female protagonists. The resources of MGM, then the most prosperous of Hollywood studios, are everywhere on display in this film, from the glossy, high-key cinematography of master cameraman Joe Ruttenberg, to the diorama-like sets of art director Cedric Gibbons and set decorator Edwin Willis (the film features several "exteriors" that are plainly shot on Culver City soundstages). Random Harvest seems to have been designed as a machine to manufacture emotion. That machine works perfectly throughout the intricacies of Random Harvest, masking the sleight-of-hand required to keep the lovers just out of each other's psychological reach, and making us feel as if Paula and Smithy are characters out of our own desires.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.